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  • James Houser

490 BC - Battle of Marathon

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

AUGUST 11 - 490 BC. A Persian expeditionary force has just landed on the coast of Greece, and all that stands in its way is a ragtag citizen militia from the city of Athens. It’s the beginning of the Persian Wars, a saga of myth and legend that sees the tiny cities of Greece defy the largest empire in the known world – at least, that’s the story. But the Battle of Marathon is the place where fact and fiction blur together.

The main theme of my post today is gonna be an old favorite: the mythological version of history versus what actually happened. The story of the Greek and Persian Wars is almost always told from the Greek perspective for a few reasons. First is the underdog angle: everyone loves an underdog, easy. Second is the cultural angle: noble Western citizens defending their homes from the faceless Eastern hordes, which has been a handy drum to beat since, well, 490 BC. Finally, there’s the historical angle. Most of our literary surviving sources for the Greek-Persian Wars were written by Greeks and Latins, not Persians. In fact, our main sources for the whole Persian Empire are usually Greek writers since the Persians left so few literary records. So it’s somewhat understandable that most history books take the Greek side since, after all, that’s really our only version of the story.

I’m going to make an effort, then, to tell this story from the Persian point of view rather than the Greek whenever possible – the same way I find it fun to tell the American Revolution from the British point of view. It’s not an angle we see a lot, which makes it all the more interesting to me.

Who EXACTLY were the Persians, though? “Persia” is a modern catch-all for Iran in general, but ancient Persia was actually a very specific area in southwest Iran. There was a large empire in the 600s BC stretching across northern Iraq, Iran and southern Turkey known as the Median Empire – and many of our Greek sources refer to their invaders as Medes more often than “Persians.” Either way, a resurgent Persia under the great king Cyrus the Great conquered the Median Empire in the 550s, basically took over its existing structure and merged the two nations, then proceeded to absolutely wreck everything in his path for the next thirty years. The Persian Empire (more accurately, the Median-Persian Empire) soon stretched from Turkey to India, controlling the whole Middle East and most of Central Asia.

Somewhere along the way, one of Cyrus’s generals had conquered a bunch of cities on the west coast of Asia Minor – a land called Ionia. These cities were Greek colonies, a scattering of urban centers founded by Greek immigrants from the mainland that still held close ties with their parent cities. After having utterly trashed multiple massive realms, such as Lydia, Babylonia and Scythia, the Persians were perplexed to receive emissaries from some random little village called Sparta demanding that they restore freedom to the Greeks. Their response was basically, “Lol no” and that was that.

For the next twenty years, Persia had virtually no interest in these little sheep-herding, wine-drinking towns off in some mountain valleys. There was much bigger fish to fry, like the conquest of Egypt and a major dynastic war. The winner of this very brief Persian civil war was a guy named Darius, one of the most brilliant administrators and organizers the ancient world ever produced. Under Darius, the Persian Empire would reach the height of its stability, power, and influence, with the exception of those annoying little Greek people.

Darius stretched the empire to its limits, and was constantly on campaign. Under his reign, the empire extended to Egypt, Sudan and Libya in Africa, almost all of western India, the Caucasus kingdoms, and most of the Black Sea Coast. He also advanced his frontiers into Europe itself, personally leading a campaign in 513 BC, crossing the Bosporus Strait using an enormous military bridge built in part by the subdued Greek cities of Ionia. Darius led a large army across this bridge and campaigned for a while against the wild Scythian people who inhabited what is now Ukraine.

The Ionian Greeks had never been exactly content under Persian rule, used to governing their own affairs by their own civic laws. The Persian Empire was organized so that, instead of one part of the world lording it over everyone else with its own armies, it incorporated the conquered nations into Persian government and the military. The Persian army was made up of a wide array of forces with many different military talents, with the veteran Persians and Medes at its core, providing the best troops and also most of the officers. This system extended to the conquered Greeks, which was why Darius had relied on the Ionian cities to build his bridge, but unlike most of the Persian subjects the Greeks remained restless and ungrateful for the protection and stability Persia had brought them.

When Darius was fighting the Scythians, he left a force of Ionian Greeks to guard his lines of supply, including the bridge. Eventually, Darius gave up his war and began retreating towards the bridge. One of the Greek commanders, an Athenian named Miltiades, proposed destroying the bridge and letting the Scythians destroy the Persian army and kill its king, but he was overruled by his fellow Greeks. After Darius recrossed the bridge and learned of this plot, he swore vengeance against Miltiades, who fled back to his home city. This was the first time an Athenian had run afoul of Darius. I mean, it was kind of a rotten move to try and betray a dude you swore to serve in his most vulnerable moment.

Athens was a weird city. Up until 510 BC, it had been ruled by a pair of brothers – Hippias and Hipparchus – who ruled over the city like tyrants, until Hipparchus was murdered in the streets. This caused Hippias to go insane and murder-happy, until the Athenians expelled him and instituted a brand new form of government: a democracy, from demos (“people”) and kratos (“rule.”) The Athenian aristocrats, who hated the new democracy, asked the military state of Sparta for help to remove these radicals. Sparta was able to temporarily overthrow the democracy, but soon the Athenians kicked the Spartans back out.

The Athenians, worried about Sparta coming back after them, sent a delegation to the local Persian governor to ask for his assistance. When they arrived at the Persian court, the governor demanded that they give him earth and water, which the Athenians promptly did, probably shrugging and saying “Uh, sure? Ok.” What the Athenians did not understand was that this was a sign of submission, an acknowledgement that Persia was now their overlord, and they would benefit from its protection and its administration so long as they just helped out the Great King when necessary.

In 499 BC, the Ionian city-states began their long-simmering rebellion against Persia, and asked their fellow Greeks for assistance. Almost all of the states including Sparta declined, not wanting to poke the bear, but the Athenians sent a small fleet of twenty ships and the tiny city of Eritria sent another five. They raised a bit of hell and burned the major Persian city of Sardis, but the Ionian Revolt was ultimately hopeless when the Persian army and navy were mobilized. Soon they had utterly smashed the rebels, but now King Darius had a new problem to deal with – two pesky little cities that for some reason had helped out a bunch of rebels within his realm.

Look at this from Darius’s perspective – these people swore fealty to you in exchange for protection from their enemies, and then they betray you and assist other rebels? And Miltiades, the other guy who tried to backstab you is active in their politics, allowed to roam free? All this was just too much. They had to be punished. Keep in mind, Darius did not go himself to Greece – at any point. He was much busier with larger matters in the Empire beyond punishing some little towns. He would delegate this task.

In 492, Darius sent an army to march overland into Europe with a few goals: receive the submission of Thrace and Macedonia, roll down to Greece and get earth and water from the rest of the cities, and oh yeah, smack Athens and Eritria down like the dogs they are. Thrace and Macedonia submitted quickly. Unfortunately, the Persian fleet got wrecked in a storm, which necessitated a second attempt to invade Greece. (Fun fact: this is the exact same route Darius’ son Xerxes would take 12 years later, and his fleet would suffer a similar catastrophe.)

Take two came in 490 BC. Darius sent 650 ships with a force of about 25,000 men to subdue Athens and establish Persian control over Greece. Darius’ general Datis would command, and Datis would bring the deposed Athenian tyrant Hippias – who had made his way to the Persian court to get his throne back – with him. Hippias’ job was to agitate amongst his old aristocratic allies in Athens and provoke a rebellion, in return for which Darius would make him the Persian Governor of Greece. It was a combination that had worked many times before, and there were many Greeks that were all for a Persian hegemony that would keep them safe from local Greek rivals – better a king a thousand miles away than the very dangerous next-door neighbor.

Athens freaked out when they realized Persia was on its way with an army. Troops of the largest empire in the world were descending on their small city, and they began begging the other Greek cities for help. None responded; Sparta announced that there was a religious festival coming up that they could not miss, and they would help Athens after it was over. This was almost certainly an excuse, and Sparta was enjoying the sight of Athens squirming in fear.

Datis landed 10,000 troops to surround and besiege Eritria. From there, he sailed for the Greek mainland, landing with almost 15,000 of his troops at the Bay of Marathon, an open inlet about 25 miles north of Athens. The Persian army was the usual agglomeration of imperial and local troops, including many infantry from Asia Minor and the usual hard core of Persians and Medes. As the Persian expeditionary force unloaded on the beach near the plain of Marathon, the Athenians were approaching.

The Athenian military was a citizen militia, like all Greek cities had except for Sparta. The Greek army fought in the phalanx, a compact mass of heavy infantry with long spears and tall shields. Only free men could fight in the phalanx, since only adult males of a certain age had the money to buy the arms and armor needed to stand and fight in the front lines. Each of the ten tribes of Athens elected a commander, with a polemarch elected from the whole city in overall command. It was the polemarch Callimachus who led the Athenians, 10,000 strong, to fight at Marathon; Miltiades, of Darius’ enmity and earlier fame, was one of the ten tribal generals.

The Athenians occupied the high ground on the western side of the plain, and were soon joined by 1,000 troops from the small city of Plataea – the only other Greek city to answer their calls for help. For eight days, the Persians and Greeks watched each other over the sandy dunes and gentle plains of Marathon. The Persians were unwilling to attack the high ground, and the Greeks were unwilling to abandon it. Every night, the Greek commanders debated how they were going to proceed: attack, or hold their ground?

On the ninth day, the Athenians received word that Eritria had fallen, and been destroyed as retaliation for its defiance of Persia. The other half of Datis’ army would soon be on its way. Some Athenians were in favor of waiting for the Spartans to arrive. Miltiades, however, pointed out that Persia had brought Hippias along in order to sow political discord within Athens; the sooner action was taken and victory was achieved, the less likely that the army would be stabbed in the back by politicians back home. The deciding vote fell to Callimachus, who agreed with Miltiades.

On an unknown date in 490 BC, Miltiades formed the Athenian army into its phalanx. The Plain of Marathon rolled out before them. The fearsome Persian cavalry were not present, having taken their horses off to find forage and water, and the most dangerous Persian troops to worry about now were the archers, the bulk of the Persian army. Miltiades’ plan was simple: close with the Persians in a charge and destroy them as fast as possible, before the archers could inflict casualties and before the cavalry could return.

The Greeks advanced in a line a mile long, its heavy infantry in their helmets, greaves and breastplates clanking forward, their sandals scraping the sand. The line was four men deep in the center, with heavier formations of eight ranks to both left and right. As the two forces were relatively equal in number, the Greeks depended on speed and shock to overwhelm and destroy the Persians before they could react. As soon as they were within 200 yards – the archers’ range – the line broke into a headlong run at their foes.

The Greeks were lucky. The reason that the Persian cavalry was off gathering forage was that the Persians were literally packing to leave. Datis had said “screw this, I’m going to go land somewhere else,” and the infantry was preparing to climb on board their vessels when the Greeks suddenly marched out to fight. The Persians still put up a fight, attacking the weakened Greek center as the charge impacted their line. The Persians actually broke through in several places – this was no walkover for the Greeks – but thanks to the greater Greek strength on the flanks, the Persian force was soon caught between the twin anvils of the phalanx.

This is about the point Datis said, “Yeah, I think it’s time to go,” and loaded up the rest of his army on the ships. The cavalry arrived and managed to get their forces on board even as the Greek and Persian infantry were slugging it out on the beach. Soon the Persian army was scrambling on board the ships to get back out to sea away from these nutty men with the heavy armor. In only a few hours, the Battle of Marathon was over and the Persians were away. Allegedly, one Athenian – Pheidippides – raced the 25 miles back to Athens to tell the city of their victory, after which he collapsed and died. This is the origin of the “marathon.”

That’s what happens when you run a marathon, folks.

Allegedly, the Persians lost 6400 dead at Marathon while the Greeks only lost 192 – but these numbers seem optimistic, and they come from a Greek historian. In all likelihood, the Persians suffered a fair number of casualties but were not destroyed. Datis’ army made its way home singed, a little older and wiser. The trouble was telling Darius just how badly he had screwed up.

The Athenians were over the moon. They had saved Greece from the invader! Then, and since, Marathon has been lauded as “the battle that saved the West.” The idea is that the brave Greeks, inherently better than the wicked easterners, fought and won a glorious victory due to their superior spirit, culture, and society. It definitely WASN’T because they caught the Persians in the middle of loading their ships and unprepared for battle, and it was DEFINITELY a terrible defeat that was a stunning blow to the wicked empire, not just a pinprick. Don't tell that to Athens, though, they just saved Greece! From...better administration and taxes and stuff.

For the Persians, of course, it was a pinprick. I’m pretty sure that when word got to Darius of his army’s defeat, he exhaled, shook his head, and got back to his finances and administration. Babylon needed a new temple or two, just another day. Shame about that Greece thing. I’ll need a bigger army next time – maybe my son can take care of it.

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